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When asked recently about the reality of hell, N.T. Wright responded:

My usual counter question is: “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?” Far more Americans ask me about hell than ever happens in my own country. And I really want to know, why is it that the most prosperous affluent nation on earth is really determined to be sure that they know precisely who is going to be frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on. There’s something quite disturbing about that, especially when your nation and mine has done quite a lot in the last decade or two to drop bombs on people elsewhere and to make a lot of other people’s lives hell. So, I think there are some quite serious issues about why people want to ask that question.

Having said that, I am not a universalist. I’ve never been universalist. Someone quoted a theologian saying, “I’m not a universalist, but maybe God is.” That’s kind of a neat way of saying, “OK, there’s stuff in Scripture which is a little puzzling about this, and we can’t be absolutely sure all down the line.” But it seems to me that the New Testament is very clear that there are people who do reject God and reject what would have been His best will for them, and God honors that decision. How that works and how you then deal with the questions which result I have written about at some length.

I don’t think myself that Rob Bell has quite taken the same line that I did in Surprised by Hope. I haven’t actually had the conversation with Rob since his book was published. So, one of these days, we will and we’ll have that one out. I do think it’s good to stir things up because so many people, as I say, particularly in American culture, really want to know the last fine-tuned details of hell. And it seems to be part of their faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”

A couple of things in response:

1. Asking the question behind the question is good, but not if it results in downplaying the importance of the question.

Wright asks “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?” in order to consider the context of the question. He implies that Americans may be asking this question because of deep-seated feelings of guilt for our economic prosperity or our nation’s foreign policy. I’m afraid this simply won’t work as an explanation. The U.K. was just as invested in the Middle Eastern conflicts as the U.S., and yet he claims he is rarely asked about hell in England.

Furthermore, the idea that only Americans are asking about hell seems reductionist. When I lived overseas, I discovered Romanians to be very interested in future judgment. Visit Eastern Europe, Africa, China, and other parts of the world where there is a strong evangelical presence and you will find people grappling with these issues. The fact that few in the UK ask Wright about hell says more about the paucity of evangelical witness in England than it does any lopsided obsession with hell in the States.

Frankly, there are other, better reasons behind the recent dustup over hell. We’re coming out of a decade or two in which some of the sharp edges of Christian doctrine have been blunted and softened. Much of American preaching has centered on practical ways to better one’s present life. Newer gospel presentations sidestep the question of hell altogether and focus instead on God’s calling us to join him in the mission life for this world now. We’ve been told that people aren’t that concerned about the life of the age to come (this, despite the number of books about heaven and hell that linger around the summit of the New York Times bestseller list).

Perhaps, the reason why the subject of eternal destiny has come roaring back is because people do indeed wonder about these things, the Bible does indeed speak to them (quite often, in fact), and people who read their Bibles regularly (evangelicals in the U.S.) can’t miss all the references to final judgment. Like Wright, we should indeed ask the question behind the question, but not if our intention is to downplay the importance of the question.

2. Hell is not merely the natural outworking on sin’s consequences.

I don’t like writing about hell. I don’t relish the thought of eternal condemnation. I’m not one who, in Wright’s words, is obsessed with who will be “frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on.” My desire is to be faithful to what Scripture teaches and to represent Jesus as best as I can – even when Jesus challenges my own presuppositions and ideas. When I asked Wright about hell back in 2008, he said this:

In a sense, it is shocking and horrifying. Think about people we know! I’m sure most people, unless we live in very enclosed worlds, must know some people (if we truly hold to a theology of hell) who are going there! That should give us pause. That should cause us to pray for them and to weep over them. So I don’t say this with any relish at all.

I echo these sentiments and have had to fight back tears even while writing this blog post.

Despite the fact that the idea of eternal judgment is difficult to swallow, Wright is not a universalist. He believes that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.

Still, I’m not sure Wright’s picture of hell does justice to the Bible’s description of “last things”. Following the thought of C.S. Lewis, Wright casts hell as the consequential outworking of sinful life patterns. Sin becomes its own damnation, leading to dehumanization to the point that an individual is beyond pity. Wright is putting forth a middle way between eternal conscious torment and annihilationism, but I think his proposal neglects the passages that indicate God will actively be involved in a sinner’s eternal destiny.

Hell is not just the natural outworking of sin. It’s also the active judgment of God. In Counterfeit Gospels, I write:

Though it’s true that condemnation is the consequence of our sinful choices on earth, it’s not enough to speak of hell as merely consequential. There are too many biblical passages that describe God as actively judging sinners… Surely this view of judgment is unpopular and has negative connotations. It may be hard to stomach. But if Christianity is true, we should expect it to confront our presuppositions and views at several points. This may be the place it hits us Westerners the hardest. In trying to make sense of the biblical portrait of eternal judgment, we are left with no other choice. As glorious and majestic as the New Testament portrayal of resurrection and new creation is, so horrific and terrifying is its portrayal of God’s wrath against sinners outside of Christ.

It is puzzling to me that Wright never shies away from the glorious implications of resurrection and new heavens and new earth, and yet in his writings, he seems to distance himself from the frightening implications of some of the descriptions of hell found in the New Testament.

3. I’m all for stirring things up, but what I want to see stirred up is urgency in calling people to repentance and faith.

Wright clearly doesn’t agree with everything in Rob Bell’s book. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he and Bell get together and talk about their differences.) And yet, Wright gives Bell a pass, saying it’s “good to stir things up” among those who think they’ve got hell down to the “last fine-tuned details.” He goes easy on Bell because he sees Bell as countering a common caricature of God as a monster and ogre.

Perhaps the caricature of “God as capricious monster” exists out there, somewhere. But I have yet to run across non-Christians who conceive of God this way. In my conversations with non-Christians, I am more likely to hear them articulate a vision of God that is held captive to Western notions of “love” (sentimentalism) and “fairness”. I don’t run across many people who are afraid of hell or final judgment. Instead, I see people who resemble those in Noah’s day, eating and drinking and marrying without any sense that judgment is coming.

There is certainly a caricature of hell that deserves to be attacked (hell as a torture chamber in the middle of God’s new world), but surely the more common error in today’s time is the absence of any notion that God would actively judge sinners. Rob Bell is only counter-cultural when it comes to the evangelical subculture he has riled up. Traditional evangelicals are the true subversives, swimming hard against the entire tide of our pluralist society.

Jesus didn’t “stir things up” by backing off the truth of final judgment. He stirred things up by reaching for the most gruesome, horrifying images imaginable in order to communicate the horror of God’s judgment. I don’t think “stirring things up” among those who think they have it all figured out is the best way to increase evangelistic fervor today. Instead, I want God to use what Jesus taught about hell in such a way that my own heart will be gripped by compassion for lost people, and that I will be bold enough to faithfully represent a Savior whose teaching is increasingly unpopular.

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64 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on Rob Bell and the Reality of Hell”

  1. Joe Blackmon says:

    I resent his implication that American Christians want to know who will be in hell as if we get some sort of glee out of thinking “Oh, muslims, hindus, and mormons that don’t repent and trust Christ will be in hell. Woohoo!!!” I know more people that are interested and involving in making sure that people know how not to go there–pleading with them to trust Christ and be reconciled to God on account of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

  2. Ryan says:

    I am with you Joe.

    Outside of a fringe fundamentalism pocket of Christianity in America, I think it is massively uninformed to put forth the notion that American Christians are obsessed with Hell.

    I have been pastoring for many years now, and swim in a number of streams of evangelicalism and I have found few churches or pastors who relish to teach and focus on Hell.

    Is it taught on when a passage mentions it? Yes. But if you look at most mega-churches in America that teach topically, they never broach Hell in their rotation of messages.

    NT Wright shouldn’t act as if this controversy on Hell was born out of an American obsession on Hell. Even at the individual level, I have rarely had someone want to discuss with me the particulars of Hell. This is misinformed on Wright’s part, and also a distortion of what Bell was really trying to do.

  3. Nick says:

    I am surprised that you have not seen an emphasis on hell in American Christianity. Perhaps it has only been my own experience, but when I have experienced folks bringing the gospel to others, hell comes up very quickly and often takes a center spot in why one should consider Christianity.

    Consider, for example, some recent books on details of hell via folks’ deathbed experiences (which do sometimes sound like torture chambers). I often hear when a new book from this genre comes out and makes the rounds. And it’s not a limited phenomenon, as these books are sold to folks across the theological spectrum. I’ve met a number of people who believe in hell and in god, but balk at any notion that it has to do with the Bible. Wright might be drawing a caricature, but it’s a very recognizable one, to me at least.

    Moreover, I have personally found it refreshing to consider Wright’s approach to sin. You might be right, Trevin, that he’s downplaying hell, though I think by doing so he’s encouraging people to think of God as something different from a ‘big man up in the sky getting ready to zap me’ caricature that seems so common in folks I know who’ve left what they envision to be a fire-and-brimstone Christianity.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t a need in some circles for more Biblical teaching on the topic of hell. We absolutely need to be reminded of what’s been left behind, and if that means talking more about hell, so be it. But personally, I think there’s more than enough talk of what hell will be like, what the end times will look like, and how it’s all going to go down.

    My understanding is still very basic. God is the person I meet in Jesus Christ. When he goes to cross, I don’t see God in his accusers or the soldiers that put him there, but in him. God is active in punishment of sin, but that action looks like him going to the cross.

  4. Kenny Taylor says:

    Isaiah 53:10
    Acts 4:27,28

  5. Jeff says:

    I love N.T. Wright. Really do love him. He is a generous and good man and I believe a very devout Christian. He also has helped me tremendously with my faith.

    However, I think you are dead on in this review, Trevin. I do think at times – in a very subtle way – NTW engages in polemics and not legitimate humble theology in answering questions. That clearly is the case with the ad hominem about Americans obsession with hell. Indeed some are and some aren’t. One reason is cultural – there’s been a steady diet of it. But, the other is because it’s in the bible!

    One might also ask, “Why is Jesus so obsessed with hell when no one in the OT is? And few in the rest of the NT?” He speaks of hell more than any other person in Scripture. Granted there are occasions where “gehenna” seems to be more temporal in nature in the NT but clearly it also goes beyond this life.

    If it was important to Jesus – it should be an important consideration to us.

    1. Dylan says:

      I feel the same way about NT Wright as you do. He has a lot of enlightening things to say about justification and the gospel. But I did find his explanations of hell quite evasive in the face of clear biblical evidence that Jesus spoke about it so often specifically for those who reject him. For an evangelical NT scholar of first rate caliber, I’m wondering why?

  6. Walt says:

    While I am slightly shocked and disappointed that Wright didn’t say more to defend an orthodox view of hell, I can identify with his assessment of the “American Obsession” with the topic.

    However, I don’t think that Americans necessarily obsess about hell, judgment, or any kind of eternal consequences (echoing Trevin’s comment), but rather, once the topic of hell is brought up, the conversation turns to an obsession over the specific, physical realities of hell – much of which we aren’t privy to (i.e. what punishments will they receive, what will they look like, what will their souls be like without God’s common grace, etc.).

    What Americans almost obsessively avoid is the personal nature of hell. The holy Creator actively punishing his rebellious creation. From my experience there is massive neglect of the biblical version of hell in which God pours out his justice. Instead the “obsession” is with a Dante’s Inferno type of hell – who, what, why and how questions at their worst (unless you’re a Renaissance poet writing in terza rima!).

    Hell should lead us to the cross not out of fear of flames, but rather out of fear of our Holy God punishing our sin justly. Our plea should be for non-believers to flee to the wrath absorbing Savior and His righteousness.

  7. Doug says:

    My understanding is very basic also. I too grew up in a “fire and brimstone”, “the rapture will happen at any moment!” kind of church. I lived in constant fear of being left behind and sad for those who would surely burn forever, especially if they broke the rules of the church I went to, like wearing shorts in public or swimming in public pools.

    And then I discovered grace. Literally, the world seemed a brighter place.

    I still grapple with what Grace means. Did Jesus mean for the Father to forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing, even though they didn’t believe? Or does Grace require the act of belief?

    In the Old Testament, man was to image God throughout the world, administering the planet with love and wisdom.

    Failing that, God gave the nations over to other gods, but kept Israel for himself, so that the nations of the world could see God’s image demonstrated there. Ancient Israelis were God’s ambassadors to the nations, and this culminated under King Solomon, who achieved that goal for a short time. People from across the world traveled to Israel to learn about God. But that collapsed too, as the Israelis followed other gods.

    So after Israel failed to image God, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower his followers to demonstrate God’s image throughout the world: to be his ambassadors to the nations.

    And in many places, Christians act as God’s ambassadors, demonstrating his rule and reign, doing his will, and enacting the love of God through serving the hungry, naked, and imprisoned, and preaching the good news that grace is free, thus making other disciples.

    In other places, Christians sit in palatial churches, offering many wonderful services to their members, but ignoring the child who starves every 30 seconds. It’s up to secular leaders like Bill Gates to attack global poverty issues, while the American church dithers about theological issues like hell and the rapture.

    According to “The Hole in our Gospel,” American Christians donate about 3% of their income to churches. If we’d increase our giving to 10%, with the difference of 7% going to overseas missions, we’d obliterate global poverty within a decade.

    Do we really want to demonstrate the love of Jesus, showing His way as the one true way to the Father? It’s hard for those experiencing hell on earth to think about hell after death. It’s hard for them to fathom the concept of a God who loves when his followers do not.

    American Christians should put their money where their faith is, because hell is here now, and so is eternal life.

  8. Ah the English… Dr. Wright – you have a far greater chance of hearing someone talk about hell in a bar then you EVER would in an American church. Given that the two most recent church waves are Church growth (which hides hell lest it offend the seeker) and emergent – which despises and denies the idea of judgment pretty much altogether – unless of course we are talking about American Imperialism and corporate globalism – those people deserve judgement, but all the good little Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc are just one their way to the same God as everyone else
    As stated earlier and well, why was Jesus so concerned about it? Didn’t he read Rob’s book? Didn’t he realize that he didn’t really need to die for anyone’s sin because God believes in us? Didn’t he realize that everyone is already saved – they just don’t know it yet? Didn’t he realize that God is already within all of the world and so God wouldn’t judge himself?
    Maybe Jesus should have read the memos (or perhaps the memes) and he wouldn’t have obsessed over that mean idea of judgment so often, and he wouldn’t have said so many rude things to people who thought differently and called them names and all. And he wouldn’t have inspired hundreds of thousands of people to foolishly go all over the world and face death, disease, beatings, and so on just to tell people the incredibly rude notion that they would have to repent and believe in Jesus.
    If only Rob and Brian had been in the original 12 – things would have worked so much better. Sigh its only a dream.

  9. Doug says:

    Bill, I think you’ve missed the point of Bell’s book. Bell, and the modern church movements (postmodern church movements?) in general, argue that it’s because Christians have experienced and known God for who he really is, and that love compels us to face death, disease, beatings and so on to expand his kingdom here, by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, setting the oppressed free. By demonstrating God’s supernatural love to the lost, more disciples will be made, who will do the same, thus multiplying God’s image throughout the earth.

    We cannot do otherwise: he is our King, and he has shown us amazing grace. It’s so freeing, so exciting, so motivating, that it’s a wonder if folks who stay behind the safety of their church walls, salt in a salt shaker, safe from impacting the world around them, really get it.

  10. Mark says:

    The elephant in the room is the idea that certain evangelicals oversell the idea of hell to sell salvation-insurance policies, and to use the associated fear effects to assume total control over their congregations. Being in the industry themselves, Bell and Wright will find it hard to articulate this, but much points there.

  11. Raj Rao says:

    Hell is very much on the minds of Christians in persecuted countries. It is very much on the minds of Indians and so also the Egyptians.

    It is very much on their minds, because justice is very much on their minds!

  12. Dave K says:

    Wonderful post. Very genuine.

    That’s from an evangelical from the UK, BTW. We do need more missionaries please :-)

  13. Tim Wilson says:

    As a Brit, I just have to contribute to this. You can tell NT Wright hangs around with liberal scholars all day long. I don’t know how you can talk to a non-Christian in any country and not get on to hell. When we held a “Grill a Christian” event at our CU (grill as in ask difficult questions) the majority of the questions were on hell. Even when I speak to boys at my kids club at church they always seem to drag the conversation back to hell.

    To me it seems to show NT spends very little time with non-Christians.

  14. Paul says:

    Trevin, what part of Romania were you in where you observed a strong evangelical presence and a strong concern about hell? I used to live in south-western Romania (the Oltenia region, in the city of Craiova,) and found the country to be dominated by the orthodox church with a very weak evangelical witness and little concern for hell, except among the few evangelicals I knew. I know this is way off of the purpose of your post, but I was caught off guard about your comment about Romania based on my experience.

  15. Trevin Wax says:


    I lived in Oradea (northwestern, bordering Hungary). The evangelicals were very solid on this issue, calling people to repentance (we were labeled “repenters” because of our insistence on repentance).

    It’s true that the Orthodox are not as vocal about hell, primarily because within the national church, most citizens are considered “Christians” because of their birth and baptism, regardless of their personal faith or conviction. It’s not that the Orthodox disregarded the doctrine of hell; it was just that few worried about it since most everyone belonged at least loosely to the Orthodox Church.

  16. val says:

    God is precise Rev 22:18-19 no one must add to or take away from the words of the book of Revelation : It is a woman Rev 12 that delivers the true word John1:1, Rev 12:5, Rev 12:13 who restores Acts 3:21 all things to the world before Christ’s return. This woman exposes the lies of Satan who has deceived the whole world Rev 12:9. This woman creates a new thing in the earth by fulfilling God’s promise to Eve Gen 3:15, Jer 31:22, Isa 14:16. Moses and Elijah are together with the word Matt 17:3 they all three are in this one woman. She is like unto Moses Num 12:3. She was raised up Acts 3:22 from the Laodicean church that becomes lukewarm because they refused to hear her Rev 3:14-17. She is bold like Elijah Matt 17:11, Luke 1:17. As Elijah was alone declaring the true God to the people so also her witness alone turns the hearts of the fathers to the children Mal 4:5-6 to prepare a people for the Lords return before the great and dreadful day of the Lord Matt 17:3, Luke 9:30. Those who will not hear Acts 3:23 the true word of God she now deliveres to the world free of charge, as a witness, at the heel of time from the wilderness Rev 12:6 will not be allowed inside the walls of God’s coming kingdom from heaven Rev 21. This true testimony of the true value of the blood of the Lamb delivers the truth that not one child of God will be put in a hell fire no matter what their sins. It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer 7:31, Jer 19:5. God created evil Isa 45:7 to teach his children the knowledge of good and evil Rom 8:7, Gen 3:22 so that at their resurrection they become a god Matt 22:29-30, Ps 82:6. Prove all things. You cannot rightly judge this unless you read all that has been written by this woman first Pro 18:13. Check out the bruising of Satan and the reason for all of mankind’s sufferings.

  17. Theology Samurai says:

    Excellent post Trevin, I wish you could pose some questions to NTW right now re: his statements.

    Seems as though Bishop Wright indeed does have some theological pre-commitments which flavor his understanding of the Scriptures. I would love for him to exegete the appropriate texts on hell. I mean, he is absolutely objective on the NPP and his exegesis on that topic…

  18. andy says:

    It is one thing to say that we cannot know who is going to hell. I agree that we should not fixate on this. If we think about who is going to hell and who is not, it is easy to feel self righteous about ourselves compared to all of those bad people. It is another thing to imply (as the steven page, formerly of the barenaked ladies, look-alike does) that if God sends anyone at all to hell that He is a bad God.

  19. J Jackson says:

    In Lee Strobel’s book THE CASE FOR THE REAL JESUS he quotes this comment from Daniel B. Wallace ‘I’ve actually had Christians tell me Jesus is called the Word, the Bible is called the Word, and so I worship the Bible’. Man has no limit to his creation of idols. If he can make an idol of the Bible, he can certainly make an idol of hell. That is the point I think N.T. Wright is addressing.

    If the cross and all its cost is fact, then hell is fact. But ultimately salvation is not dependent on belief in hell, but on belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    Evangelism that seeks first to reach the heart through threat of hell, risks a faith by fear instead of by trust.

  20. Rodney Trotter says:

    A good article, but the following ipse dixit is ill-founded: “The fact that few in the UK ask Wright about hell says more about the paucity of evangelical witness in England than it does any lopsided obsession with hell in the States.”

    Trevin, I’d be grateful if you’d clarify how you know this? You don’t live or minister in the UK. You don’t know if there’s strong evangelical witness in all areas of the UK or just some, or whether it ebbs and flows. Sure, NT Wright’s comment about American obsessions with hell seems to be unfair, but you are not right or fair to retaliate with an unfounded damning indictment on British evangelicalism.

    There is lots of evangelical witness taking place in England. The subject of hell often crops up in conversations with non-Christians in the UK.

    Could it be that there are potentially a plethora of other reasons why people don’t ask NT Wright about hell?

    I request that the statement quoted above in an otherwise good article should be recanted.

  21. Trevin Wax says:


    Thanks for your comment. I certainly did not intend to indict British evangelicalism. I have many evangelical friends in Britain and I am grateful for their lives and ministry. The last thing I want to do is condemn those in the UK who are faithful witnesses to the truth of the gospel.

    My intention in the statement was to point out – not the weakness of the evangelical witness, but the fact that the witness is small in numbers in comparison with many parts of the U.S. The other comments on this post from folks in England indicate that most readers took it that way. I appreciate the pushback from you, however, as it gives me a chance to clarify.

    God bless our evangelical brothers and sisters across the pond! :)

  22. Rodney Trotter says:

    Thanks for your response Trevin – that makes a lot of sense.

  23. nick says:

    The idea that little talk about hell implies a “paucity of evangelical witness” anywhere is a depressing thought. As if our witness requires a discussion of hell.

  24. Andrew says:

    Thank you for this post. Thank you for being willing to call out NT Wright on some of his statements.

  25. Paul Pyle says:

    Thank you Trevin for your post and calling NTW to task about his comments. I think NTW should be more concerned about the lack of faith in the people of the British Isles, how many churches have been closed or turned into coffee shops, etc, than about what Americans think about Hell.
    Then of course he does have his own view of salvation too, doesn’t he? See the February 2010 issue of TableTalk “What N.T. Wright Really Said”.

  26. AStev says:

    “I really want to know, why is it that the most prosperous affluent nation on earth is really determined to be sure that they know precisely who is going to be frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on. There’s something quite disturbing about that, especially when your nation and mine has done quite a lot in the last decade or two to drop bombs on people elsewhere and to make a lot of other people’s lives hell.”

    This is quite a disappointing caricature coming from NT Wright. :\ No doubt there are some jingoistic American faux-Christians who are jazzed about bombing others into the stone age, but for NT Wright to pose it this way as if that’s the tenor of American Christianity in general is disingenuous and disappointing. Indeed, up until now, I would have considered him more reasoned and thoughtful than this. Perhaps he was having a bad day.

  27. Luther says:

    Hardly anyone I know is fearful of Hell. Believers have nothing to fear and non-believers do not fear what they do not believe in. If there is an obsession with Hell it is, like the OP states, that we are coming back to Biblical Christianity which confronts the Afterlife. If there is grace there must be wrath.

  28. defectivebit says:

    N.T. Wright equivocates what a country does politically regarding foreign policy with that of *everyone who asks this question* in America. Making this equivocation, if consistent, should be applied to people like Bonhoeffer in Germany. Which of course would be ridiculous. But notice that he does it for a reason. Trevin, you did a good job pointing out what the implication being made here is: “He implies that Americans may be asking this question because of deep-seated feelings of guilt for our economic prosperity or our nation’s foreign policy.” Sadly, I see this type of manipulation in Evangelicalism on an upswing the last 10 years. A good dose of studying “Vocation” would do a lot of Evangelicals some good. Let alone in understanding God’s grace in both blessing and want. The late rise in anger towards psychological manipulation in the Gospel call has been good but now people turn to the same tactics to raise money.

  29. Daryl Little says:

    But our witness does require a discussion of hell. Else why are we witnessing?

    The gospel, while it does produce great fruit that affects the here and now, is not ultimately about the here and now.
    Our here and now is so so short, that hell on earth is bearable because we’ll all soon die and leave it.
    But biblical hell is so far reaching (eternity) and so all encompassing (every non-perfect person who hasn’t repented and turned to Christ as his only hope of salvation for hell) that do avoid the topic in evangelism is to undermine the whole point of the enterprise.

    To say discussion of hell in evangelism is unimportant is to say that the possibility of a building falling down is irrelevant in the discussing the size of it’s supporting beams.

  30. MJ King says:

    Since Wright’s treatise on Justification, I find that I can’t pay much attention to what he has to say. Trevor is right on.

  31. Derek says:

    Somehow this post skipped my radar. Thanks for writing it. I posted the small video clip on my facebook page the other day with disapproval and was taken to task by my many fb Wrightian friends (of which I am, to some extent, one of them).

    Great articulation of my concerns.

  32. Matt says:

    I want to say that in some parts of the world, just about all we hear from American Christianity is judgement, hell-fire and a sense of we are right and you’re wrong! I’m on the other side of the world and this is unfortunately what we regularly hear. I know this is not a fair representation as I know good Christian people and read many good things from America, yet somehow our media only portrays you guys as a mass of Mark Driscoll’s yelling “You’re all going to die!”. I don’t know how you more moderate and considerate guys get more airplay over here but I pray you do. I think this influences the discussion of hell from our perspective and I can understand how NTW might also hear these same influences (although he should be have a wider perspective).

    Thanks for your post,

  33. James says:


    I take N.T. Wrights remarks to be largely throwing aside one of Rob Bell’s central premises and reasons for the book: the premise that “Hell tells us a lot about God.” I think N.T. Wright is quite right in this assessment, and that the “Question behind the question” is not so much, “what does hell tell us about God?” (which I’d answer: nothing which the rest of Scripture doesn’t tell us with more clarity); and is rather: “what place should hell have in our thought, imagination and theology?”

    If you have time, I have written one piece – American Hell outlining the basic point, and a second one – Hell as cognitively and imaginatively resistant and repulsive: consequences for us in response to certain misunderstandings, sharpening this view. Your comments would be very welcome.

  34. James S says:

    blah blah blah we are the world, blah blah blah we are the theologians.
    blah blah blah everyone’s got an oh so important opinion that I just HAVE to hear and read.

    No thanks. I’ll take the word of God in the Bible through the prophets, apostles and Jesus himself, and I’ll be satisfied.

  35. Ruben says:

    There is this idea that God’s Kingdom is to be brought by His people in acts of mercy, kindness and social justice throughout the world. I don’t think this rhymes with the early church, in reading the NT we see the church as being primarily concerned with spreading the message and being a good example to the outside world. The apostles and the church were not setting the world aright by supplying its physical needs and stopping there, they seemed much more concerned about the spiritual.

  36. Debbie says:

    If God knows each of his children by name and even down to each hair, then he also must know
    each of his created people who are not elect and do not see the light. So judgment is personal not objective just as welcoming into heaven will be. We can expect nothing less from a just and sovereign God.

  37. Dan Allison says:

    I hardly think fundamentalism is a “fringe” pocket in the USA. Seems to me that it’s the rest of us who are on the fringe here.

  38. Marc says:

    Doug’s observations are cogent and precise; I recognize so much of my own journey from fundamentalist baptists who hated both the people and politics to the breathtaking moment when “Amazing Grace” saved me from the tempests.

    If the church is the ultimate apologetic along with Israel too many of us remain, have become or are blindly following the dictates of culture rather than the lessons, however hard they are to discern and digest, of the Master’s teachings. The instance of hell is something I don’t understand and accept only because Jesus spent so much time in warning about; but it is NOT why I accepted grace and it is NOT what the ultimate message of redemption is about. Bishop Wright commands my respect; in this instance I think his view is tempered by the British view of the United States and not what the American church is concerned about.

    I urge him to reconsider his position and devote some time to this concern of the church in America: what is hell? why was Jesus so concerned about it? and ultimately why did he go to hell after his death?

  39. Ted says:

    Of course, in every discussion about issues that matter to Christians, it is a mistake to paint every one with the same broad brush. Not all Christians delight in the idea that others deemed less worthy are going to fry in hell – but enough do in fact think this way to give the impression that the Second Coming is about rewarding good Christians with a front row seat to watch the bad Chrisitans get their come-upins. Somehow this does not seem to square with what Jesus thought about the coming Kingdom. How did we get the idea that God’s future is all about kicking butt instead of renewal?

  40. Jackson Baer says:

    Great article and inspiring words. The world is lost and dying and needs Jesus. The Scriptures do not teach eternal punishment but there is still an urgency to spread the Good News.

  41. simmmo says:

    Trevin, perhaps you didn’t see much focus on hell in Romania because the Orthodox have a very different and far more loving view of hell than Evangelicals do. It’s not because of Orthodox nominalism. I think you’d find that if you had talked to an Romanian Orthodox priest about hell you’d find out that the Western hell you espouse is totally rejected in the East. I provided some Kallistos Ware quotes on hell in another post. I’ll provide them here just for others to read. I note too, that Ware is largely in agreement with Bell and Wright. I think most Evangelicals would be shocked at the Eastern view of hell. It might sound too “liberal” to them. But, then again, reality often has a liberal bias ;)

    “But Hell exists as well as Heaven. In recent years many Christians — not only in the west, but at times also in the Orthodox Church — have come to feel that the idea of Hell is inconsistent with belief in a loving God. But to argue thus is to display a sad and perilous confusion of thought. While it is true that God loves us with an infinite love, it is also true that He has given us free will; and since we have free will, it is possible for us to reject God. Since free will exists, Hell exists; for Hell is nothing else than the rejection of God.”

    “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures’ (Mystic Treatises, edited by A. J. Wensinck, Amsterdam, 1923, p. 341). Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil.”


  42. simmmo says:

    Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons man, as a place where man, by misusing his free will, chooses to imprison himself. And even in Hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. ‘The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves’ (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 234).

    Again another Eastern theologian agreeing with Wright, CS Lewis etc. It will be shocking for many evangelicals. Perhaps, as Wright asserts, things need to be “stirred”.

  43. simmmo says:

    Here is an Orthodox priest showing the diff between protestants and Orthodoxy. Rob Bell’s position seems pretty “Orthodox” (big “O”).

  44. R. K. Greene says:

    Read Wright’s books and you will find a great testimony of orthodox Christian faith. Read a comment he made about Bell, who is not orthodox, and you made a snap judgment about the man and his beliefs.

  45. simmmo says:

    my point wasn’t that Bell is completely orthodox, but rather his views on hell are actually not as heretical as evangelicals make them out to be. He is asking questions in that book which Eastern Orthodoxy is comfortable with, which NT Wright is comfortable with, but which evangelicals are not comfortable with. And perhaps the very literal view of hell that hyper Calvinists believe in is actually not as scriptural as people think.

  46. Daniel M. says:

    I think taking N.T. Wright’s comment on Rob Bell towards the end there and then making an assumption about how N.T. Wright sees hell can be a bit dangerous.

    In reading a lot of N.T. Wrights work, I find that he is quite orthodox and in a weird sense provides us with fresh, new, but somehow old views of Scripture and ideas he hold dear.

    I think what Rob Bell is getting at is that we are quite arrogant in our thinking about who should be going to hell and who won’t be. Not to say that the Bible doesn’t tell us, it’s just that we should be careful not to make rash judgments. Why ARE we so fixated on hell? I don’t know. If we were more fixated on the Kingdom and grafting people in, then maybe we can contrast that with the other reality which is much more grim and help people understand.

    All in all, I’m in agreement with Wright here.


    Daniel Maldonado

  47. james says:

    Hi. You wrote “There are too many biblical passages that describe God as actively judging sinners”, and tie that in with a belief in eternal torment. I’d suggest the two don’t necessarily go together/one leading to the other. Sure God judges sin. But His judgments are righteous and lead to righteousness, as the end of the Lord is merciful. His righteousness will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. His plan is of the ages, not just of THIS age. The spiritual Lake of Fire will eventually bring all to repentance, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. He is the good Shepherd who will not lose His sheep, and will draw (Gr., drag) every sheep into the fold.

  48. Michael K. says:

    I do wish that Wright would not have given Bell a pass as well. However, Wright’s comments should not therefore be dismissed. He gives us something to consider in our gospel presentation, that is, to present the gospel for what it is – “good news.” Of course, there is bad news for non-believers which should not be dismissed in full, biblical teaching, but our priority ought to be communicating what is of first importance: that Jesus died for our sins and was raised, giving us hope in a future resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).

    Additionally, sadly I actually have encountered non-Christians who more or less viewed the Christian God as “a capricious monster.” This was primarily due to hearing more about God’s judgment than his scandalously sacrificial love. Christians ought to be aware that this mistaken caricature of God does occur and has been for some time (I’m thinking about Marcion c. 150 AD). Again, this does not mean we change truth as Bell and others have, but we should consider the priority which we give the good news over the bad news.

  49. Leigh Copeland says:

    Wrigh doesn’t think that ANY of Jesus’ imagery on coming judgment refer to final judgment at the end of the world, rather 70AD. Did you miss that or do you just disagree?

  50. McSassenach says:

    ” I don’t run across many people who are afraid of hell or final judgment. Instead, I see people who resemble those in Noah’s day, eating and drinking and marrying without any sense that judgment is coming.” – Trevin Wax
    This is PRECISELY the problem with the Arminian view of hell. People don’t choose to go there. They don’t believe it exists. If they believed it existed, they would not choose to go there. This is like the insurance salesman smallprint version of a choice; what they actually choose is something else altogether. If people are truly to be deemed to have “chosen” to go to hell, they should first be fully informed with total understanding of what they are choosing. The “get-out” that it is all down to personal choice surely does not meet the demands of justice as it is framed by the Arminian view.

  51. Francis Thomas says:

    Nice article.However a lot of folks here are very touchy about the subject of hell.The wages of sin is death period.God’s gift of eternal life is a rescue mission. Sin is not fundamentally the so called “bad things” that people do but separation from God.God is eternal and in him is everlasting life. So when He told Adam and Eve that they will die if they ate from the tree of knowledge, He gave them a choice to exercise their freewill. By eating from the tree they chose to be alienated from God permanently for there is no death in God. Hell is eternal separation from God and it started when mankind made a decision to be separated from it’s creator and that hellish condition escalated from the curses in Eden to the present day for and in the lives of everyone who consciously rejects God’s rescue mission. About the optics of people burning and being in torment, we should not be remiss of the fact that a lot of people are experiencing such torment and burnings in lesser degrees today in different parts of the world. God’s rescue mission was to restore mankind to abundant life even now while the lake of fire settles the question of death and hell permanently.Sinners and sin together with hell and death will be destroyed permanently.

  52. Toni Pate says:

    I am just fascinated with any and all ideas of what “Americans believe”….as if American Christians or non-Christians agree on anything. There are certainly “hell fire and brimstone” pockets where I live in the South, but I am certainly aware of those who have little or no belief in a final judgment of any description. Whoever it was that said Jesus puts forth whatever images he can to illustrate the horror of eternal damnation comes the closest to what I personally believe. It believe that eternal life without God will be ….well, hell. And I believe Jesus when he explains that it is beyond what our limited minds can imagine as terrible. I am not willing to press his images farther than that. Why would I need to?

  53. David Abrams says:

    “Sin is not its own punishment.” What?

    “…gives Rob Bell a free pass.” Of course. Bell is one of the finest living American Pastors. The better question is, how do we give people like John Piper and James White a free pass, who don’t believe that God loves all people at all?

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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